Gig review: Aly and Phil not quite in our village this time

The last time I saw these two absolute legends was in our own Talla an Iochdair, in September 2019, not long before lockdown. We had to travel a bit further than the end of our road this time, across as far as Talla Chàirinis in North Uist, which is a whole different island and across two causeways (with thanks to kind neighbours Robert and Isbel for the lift). The event featured as part of this year’s Ceòlas symposium, whose events have, apparently inevitably and like others (like the big cup final between Iochdar Saints and Barra that same afternoon), been somewhat disrupted by current events.

There was no stopping Aly and Phil, though, who had arrived on Uist that afternoon via Stornoway (and a ferry and a causeway) and whose September Hebridean tour seems to be a regular part of the (non-lockdown) calendar – the previous event was September too, and I can recall at least one visit taking place in September (2018, perhaps).

A local tune (‘The Shores of Loch Bi’), together with associated repartee ‘Where is Loch Bi?’ (pause for audience response) ‘I think it’s quite close to Loch A’) set the tone for the evening, being reflective and elegiac, with the first part of the gig taking place against the setting sun, the hall’s location providing a gorgeous view of the sunset over reed-filled lochs. Indeed, Phil was so taken by the scene he had popped out before the gig to take a picture; before spending the whole of the first half scratching bare forearms between numbers (you’ll need to remember the Smidge next time, Phil!).

The boys have a new album – No Rush – to promote, a typically carefully-curated collection featuring tunes from diverse sources and countries and including the pen of Phil himself, whose title references both some of the slower numbers that they play in their sets as well as their own general, and quite astonishing, lack of recordings together.

The album should have been released in 2020 and, well, we all know what happened then – No Rush also calls to mind the delay to releases and promotional tours occasioned by the pandemic. Aly is now 76 (and Phil 62) and, at this stage, and with their own health problems, this two-year delay could have potentially been fatal. We’re lucky to have them as well as other musicians whose life is performing on the stage for an audience. Lockdowns were costly for people whose livelihoods depend on performing but also, in terms of mental health, who love being on stage and in social settings. And for whom DIY failings as a means of filling the time without a gig to go to could have spelled catastrophe!

As always, the banter between the numbers provided highlights as the musicians rested, cracks about Aly’s health (‘on his 76th birthday, all his doctors came out to applaud him’), his recent marriage (where, at 76, he continues to be an inspiration to us all), Phil in the Unst bus shelter and reminiscences about appearing at Balmoral and conversing with Her Majesty about the intricacies (or not…) of playing respectively accordions and fiddles among them. After 36 years of playing together, there is an instinctive feel to their mutual playing which only comes from practice in a live setting – make no mistake, these are not so much recording artists as practising musicians – and around which they have reached an accommodation of each other’s on-stage foibles; but they’re also very comfortable with each other’s presence, gentle pats of each other at the end of each number standing for both re-assurance, thanks and congratulations. You can’t bottle that and put it on a CD.

As well, of course, of an immense repertoire of songs to pick from and to remember how to play. While jigs and reels also featured (recalling the ‘diddly pish’ of one bold Aberdeen taxi driver ferrying Phil to a gig one night), it was the slower numbers that took centre stage, with ‘Song for Liam’, ‘Irish Beauty’,’Lightly Swims The Swan’ and a Strathspey by the famous fiddle player Scott Skinner (may well have been ‘Hector the Hero’, which also features on the album*) being particular stand-outs and which pay tribute to their own advancing years: sombre in tone they might have been, yet never mournful and still capable of absolutely ripping it up. We got ‘Jean’s Reel’, of course, with Phil living up to his promise to play this tune at every gig he plays (not sure he’d get away without it – it would be like Springsteen turning up and failing to play ‘Born To Run’) and while ‘Hangman’s Reel’ was missing this time, Aly more than made up for it, his virtuosity to the fore re-creating on his fiddle the sounds of retreating horses, snorting in panic, on ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.

They’re still on tour largely in the north of Scotland for much of the rest of September but, if they’re not coming near you, do yourself a favour, buy the album and share a flavour of performing musicians still at the top of their game and grateful to be out and about again doing what they do best: bringing live music, and memories, and romance, and dreaming, to the people. In that, more power to their elbows.

Oh yes – and Phil is still wearing the same checked shirt.

[EDIT later the same day: having now heard the album, it was.]

Three gigs in one week

A recent extended trip to Perth (purposively for a car service appointment but converting a necessary trip to the mainland to do other things too) gave the chance to take in a series of gigs none of which were planned from the outset. These were not my first gigs since the outbreak of Covid-19 but they did provide the opportunity to take the temperature about going back out again in these not-yet post-Covid times but as lockdown measures are being increasingly lifted. Musicians and stage performers have been among the hardest hit by lockdowns, and the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint needs to be experienced again.

First up was Perth Theatre for ‘An Evening Without Kate Bush‘ – motto: ‘She’s not there / But you are’ – Sarah-Louise Young’s tribute act with a difference. With millions of ‘Fish People’ watching Bush’s videos, many of which come from an era before even MTV, alongside a historic aversion to appearing on stage, overcome in 2014 with tickets even to the extra shows being sold out in 30 minutes, Kate Bush’s draw is still sizable as is the scope for tribute acts.

As Young said from the stage, it’s very easy to parody Kate Bush – dress up in a curly wig, wave your arms around a bit and do some wailing. However, doing all that actually undermines why people come to the show, which is to relive a little bit of magic about a star most attendees hold dear to their hearts and which sees those whose intention is only to parody quickly caught out. What Young’s show does, therefore, is combine those parody elements with ensuring that gig-goers, whether Fish People, those who remember a few bits and pieces from a while ago or those who have little idea of what’s going on or really why they are there, are placed firmly at the centre. She calls early on for audience participation, with the audience having the role of barking out the response in ‘Hounds of Love’, before descending into the stalls to get four women on a night out to go up on stage with her, after some gentle persuasion, to sing the string parts in ‘Cloudbusting’ (Do do do do / Do do do / Do do do do do do do / Do do do / Do do do) and later getting a couple to waltz around each other in a winsomely heartwarming copy of Godley and Creme’s video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ – a stage manoueuvre which effectively covered up that Young’s one-woman show has no Peter Gabriel in it while still putting fans at the heart of things. She even appeared at the side of our seats with what seemed to be a pair of communicating heads on sticks (sorry: not sure of the title of this one) before dashing back to the stage to make her next move.

At the end of the show, as that white dress is pulled out of her on-stage dressing-up box – everyone knows what’s coming as it’s the only song not yet done – it’s held aloft and then danced with as Young approaches her mic stand, slipped on over the rest of her costume and then. Oh. She’s missed her cue. Someone in the audience starts to sing, falteringly, meeting crucially with silence but an encouraging smile from Young. Others join in and, as the chorus grows, Young gently turns the mic stand around, so that the mic is facing the audience, allowing us to be the voice and her to be the dancer before she joins us for the bridge and the final few rounds: a brilliantly executed move that showcased what the show was about.

Mixing in a fair amount of ad-libbing with the songs that Bush has both written and covered, as well as stories and anecdotes about the influence that Bush had on her as a young girl, is not easy when the show’s dynamism depends on audience participation and when there is no other actor on stage to spark off. Perth, being a little conservative by nature, is perhaps not the most dynamic of places, but the show – both well-attended and well-received – was a success. Young is touring it around England and Wales through the rest of March and into April; and summer shows are booked, too. If she’s appearing near you, go and see her. And do be prepared to overcome that very British reservation and participate!

Second up was a trip into Edinburgh for a couple of family-related reasons but also to catch ‘Seven Drunken Nights‘, a performers’ tribute to The Dubliners on a one-night stand at the Edinburgh Playhouse and now on its fifth anniversary tour. The show takes the form largely of a session in O’Donoghue’s, where the band started out as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, with the five musicians, including the grandson of the first ever musician to be allowed to play tunes in O’Donoghue’s, plus attendant barman, interspersing songs written and made famous by the Dubliners with dialogue relating the story of the band told in the style of craic as the musicians rested between songs. Other sections of the show take place in surrogate TV studios for appearances on ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘The Late Late Show’ and ‘The McCann Man’.

I hadn’t realised that people playing music in pubs in Dublin was not really a thing until the 1960s when the Dubliners came along; or that ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ was banned by the Irish broadcaster RTÉ (alongside much of the rest of the band’s material) as a result of the, er, dubious lyrical content. The Dubliners as a prototype Frankie Goes To Hollywood was not a thing I ever envisaged contemplating (interesting side-note: ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and ‘Relax’ are actually only seventeen years apart). Singing along is compulsory and, while I might have caused some frowning among my neighbours (to whom apologies…) with lyrics to the chorus of ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ and to ‘The Irish Rover’ that were only half-remembered, I did a bit better on ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and show-closer ‘Molly Malone’. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was also beautifully performed and, indeed, accompanied although the selections otherwise tended to eschew the social and political comment for which The Dubliners were also known.

There were plenty of choices of seats towards the back of the stalls and, while the Playhouse could have spread people out a little better, there was therefore room for those who wanted to make a bit more space for themselves from their neighbours. From my vantage point there, though, the sound could perhaps have been a little louder not only for the dialogue which was sometimes less than audible but certainly also for the songs.

The band are terrific musicians, several, including Ged Graham who wrote the musical, sport befittingly-magnificent beards and the band is really hardworking, featuring no fewer than 70 more shows throughout Britain before the end of May, some twice a day, and from Cardiff up to Darlington and Arbroath down to Brighton via Reading. All the original members of The Dubliners have now passed on and the name has been formally retired – so this is the nearest thing you’ll get both to recreating the atmosphere of The Dubliners in their heyday and, if you’re on the mainland, as they’ll almost certainly be coming to a town near you, the nearest thing you’ll get in the current environment to a proper session in an Irish pub. And far better for everyone concerned than hopping on a Ryanair to Dublin.

Gig no. 3 saw us back at Perth Theatre for Blue Rose Code plus Katie Whittaker in support. This was a bit of a surprise gig since we had intended to be at Western Isles legends Peat and Diesel the same night for the ‘Away with your Wellies’ tour. However, with two of the band going down with the ‘rona (there has been a sizable spike up on Lewis this last week (now also on Benbecula) and community transmission is ‘widespread’), the gig was cancelled (and now re-arranged for the end of April). However, Blue Rose Code – whose own tour has been several years in postponement as a result of CV-19 – provided a more than suitable substitute and need no introduction to avid readers of this blog since one of Ricky Ross’s songs featured on my New Music Mondays series of posts during lockdown a year last December. Indeed, the band kicked off with this very song and a very effective opener it made, too, in the circumstances.

However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself since Katie Whittaker is more than just support. A recognised part of the established Perth Americana set, Brora-born Katie has appeared with local legends Red Pine Timber Company and, in her own right, was well-received as part of Billy Bragg’s ‘Big Bill’s Radical Roundup’ on the Leftfield stage at the 2016 Glastonbury. This gig represents a bit of a departure for Katie since it featured only her own songs (no covers from any of the likes of Etta James and Dolly Parton that have featured on her highlights reels in the past – at least, none that I could spot) and there are whispers of a new album. Despite being audibly nervous as she took to the stage – the gig was close to selling-out Perth Theatre – and in addressing the audience between songs, her warm vocals and gentle acoustic guitar revealed a natural talent for the musical stage and for her material which sees her combine bluesy and soulful numbers with aplomb. This was an enjoyably well-crafted set with strong songs that you want to hear again and Katie has attracted a talented band, particularly the lead guitarist. If that is indeed a new album, it’ll be a good’un.

Ricky Ross is a busy man, featuring as vocalist for Scottish faves Deacon Blue as well as Blue Rose Code and with several radio gigs for Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 2 on the country/Americana scene. Notably, he also visited Bosnia as a part of one of the Remembering Srebrenica Scotland delegations and is well-placed to comment on the role of music during wartime. Indeed, Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ featured as one of an interesting choice of covers (including, otherwise, ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ as made famous by Elkie Brooks, Amazing Grace and Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets’. There may have been others.). But, in ‘promoting’ a ‘new’ album – With Healings of the Deepest Kind – which was actually released two years ago, the gig also featured plenty of original material among which ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ and ‘Starlit’, the latter dedicated to those losing their lives during Covid-19, were highlights. The set was an emotional one – inevitably so given Ross’s material and the history of cancellations amidst all that has been going on these last two years – but was well-judged and well-paced and, with an eight-piece band, including Ross himself on occasional acoustic guitar and frequent dancing, as well as a three-man horn section, there were plenty of louder moments among the emotional ones. Ross interacts frequently with the rest of the band on stage, driving greater performances on featured sections, and there ought to be a special mention for the drummer who was absolutely on it all night.

Blue Rose Code are touring throughout the rest of March and, if you’re up for a gig – I know not everyone is just yet and of course cases are rising again as an inevitable result of the removal of lockdown measures and the spread of the virus among children, as Peat and Diesel having to cancel indicates – they’re well worth an evening of your time. If you do feel confident to get out there, mask up, pack your hand gel in your pockets/bags, keep your own safety and those of others always in mind and strike out: not least in respect of live music, the last two years have given us an awful lot to catch up on.

TotW: funk’n’soul from unexpected places

It’s been a wee while since my last Track of the Week, so here’s a bonus edition with two tracks sharing a common theme, both of which need a little bit of YouTube love.

First up – and straight outta Nashville – is DeRobert and the Half-Truths. DeRobert Adams has been around for a decade or more although the second of his two full albums was as far back as 2013. Nashville is the home of country music (and an echo here back to my first Track of the Week) – but DeRobert and his band are less stetson hats and denim jackets and boots with tassels as committed funkateers. Here, a pulsing bass line, chanking guitars and insistent horns lay down the hooks for DeRobert’s warm, soulful voice to warn of the dangers of too close an association with people living somewhat on the edge and who may put good things at risk. While setting the casual listener rather out of their comfort zone resulting from a simple word association with Nashville, Tennessee’s state capital is far more these days than Music City alone and seems to have accommodated a few tips and tricks from its sister down Route 40 to the south-west. Written and produced by the splendidly on-message Nick DeVan, the Half-Truther who also plays drums and keys on ‘Thievin’ & Robbin”, this is a slice of funk’n’soul so timeless you’ll swear you’ve heard it once before somewhere, probably on that old LW radio, while nevertheless retaining a modern appeal.

DeRobert’s Bandcamp, when you’ve pumped up the YT plays enough, is right here although access to the track, released on 11 June, is via the label’s own page. DeRobert and the Half-Truths’ 100 Yard Dash – a seven-track LP which doesn’t feature ‘Thievin’ & Robbin” – was released a week earlier on 4 June.

And if the sound itself is not enough of an apparent fish out of water, the label which has licensed the track, Golden Rules, is straight outta Leipzig. Yes, Leipzig. Meanwhile Golden Rules – Bringing Soul Back to the People – has been releasing a regular, bi-weekly stream of contemporary, yet retro, tracks from the funk’n’soul scene, including from Hamburg’s Mighty Mocambos, ahead of a summer release pulling together the choicest bits. Well worth keeping an eye on.

Turning next a little further to the north-east, the Amazin’ Five are a youthful music collective straight outta Moscow. With roles in other bands and as DJs, the Amazin’ Five (who may not actually be five in number) seem to be a bit of a pick-up band for when live dates come a-calling and they don’t even have their own webpage – they do have FB and IG pages – but you can find a tiny bit more about them via the band’s page on the WillWork4Funk agency website. The band members’ love of retro soul with a contemporary feel – as well as, apparently, jazz, reggae, hip hop and blues – is undeniable, even if none of them look as though they were born much before the turn of the century, and in vocalist Olesia they have a hard-working, vibrant focal point who commands your attention.

Only With You‘ couldn’t any more be the sound of summer if it slipped a long, tall colourful drink into your hand while sitting you down by the sea in front of a setting sun casting golden light all around while whispering promises into your ear about the evening to come. Gently chiming guitars, bongos, laid-back stabs of horns, strings straight from the Al Green songbook and a dreamy Fender Rhodes solo, are topped off by Olesia’s confident, yet non-assertive, assuring vocal. Drifting skywards straight into that warm glow, ‘Only With You’ also has an English language vocal set against the same music track, but I’m linking here to ‘Gotova vzletet’/’готова взлетет’, the original language version. You’ll believe that Russian can be the language of love.

‘Only With You’ was released on 25 June and, while the Amazin’ Five have no Bandcamp of their own, you can pick it up via Tramp Records’s page. The English language version is the B-side. Or the AA-side. Either way you know what to do, people. Keep the faith.

Both tracks, by the way, were heard recently on DJ Ritu’s A World in London; new shows released every Wednesday right the way through lockdown (and beyond).

Now: where were we?

Twitter brought me the very welcome news last week that Andy Kershaw is making a return to music broadcasting, via a fortnightly podcast series – ‘AK Plays Some Bloody Great Records’ – produced in conjunction with ‘Songlines’ magazine as media partner and released to his website as well as, soon, at all the usual podcast sources. Following Nos. 3 and 4 in ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ in Radio 3’s ‘Sunday Feature’ series, showcasing Kershaw’s legendary field recordings, and broadcast earlier this month, this is AK not just dipping his toe back in the broadcasting water but making quite a bit of a splash in it.

Kershaw’s programmes on Radio 1 in the 1980s and 1990s did more to shape my musical tastes, and purchases, and gig attendances, than probably any other DJ. I heard his first show, a one-hour slot early one Saturday evening in 1985, when I knew him as Billy Bragg’s driver/tour manager/roadie and whose programmes were, by association therefore, likely to be well worth a listen. Apart from a fascination with Paisley Underground psychedelia in the early days – there was a time when Rain Parade and Green on Red seemed to be on every week – he’s never let me down whether it be with sparkling African guitars and rhythms, downhome Cajun stompers, soul-searching alt country, traditional Celtic and Anglo folkies or slices of long-buried US southern soul. His weekly programmes were required listening and I rarely missed a single one over the following years without having a grump about it. A glance at his wiki and at the live guests on his radio shows at the time is like a tour through my record and, ahem, cassette collection. He’s even a Springsteen fan, too. It’s truly great to see him back and re-enthused about music. One Easter Sunday at the back end of March in 2013, I went to one of his gigs promoting No Off Switch, his autobiography detailing his life up to the loss of his first radio career, and the saddest response of the night, before I wended my way back north by train to Perth via a 45 minute change of trains at Croy, in the snow, was when a questioner asked him what he was listening to on the drive to Edinburgh. ‘Nothing,’ came the ever-honest and somewhat apologetic reply, ‘I was enjoying some silence and a bit of my own company.’ Well, given where he’d been to, getting back on the rails again can take a bit of time and, I suspect, enjoying your own company occupies a key role in that, too.

A two-fer of Little Richard and the Mighty Grynner kicks us off with a statement of rockin’n’rollin’ Calypsonian intent and the programme blends a never-flagging two-hour-plus path through old and new: African horns and guitars, blues and country, acoustic and toasting reggae, the Staples Singers, a bit of Dylan in celebration of today’s landmark birthday and some new folk. There’s even a live session socially-distance recorded in his Todmorden kitchen, re-creating the best bits of his halcyon days when touring Americans and Africans would stop off on his Crouch End porch, sample some food and drink, feel absolutely at home and record a few gloriously settled, authentic tunes while they were at it. Sprinkling a mixture of tunes and enlivening the bits in between with reminiscences, solid information and humorous, self-deprecating observation, delivered in his forthright, matter-of-fact manner and with apparently-rejuvenated enthusiasm as well as an interview technique that continues to be gently under-stated – informed and focused questions, but determined to let the subject speak – this is a right proper radio show perhaps only missing a bit of audience interaction. He’s on fairly familiar musical ground throughout, perhaps, but his one man war on musical mediocrity is off to a sound start and I’m looking forward to more of his broadcasting mission – you never quite know what’s coming next – in future episodes. And, as the best African bandleaders always knew – if something worked well the first time around, it’s likely to work just as well the second time, too.

It’s a bit too early, of course, but, should he ever fancy the gig, there’s a vacancy for A Kershaw in the 6Music schedules these days and, if ‘Radio John Peel’ wants a living connection with the man himself, what better choice than he who shared a room in Broadcasting House, and a producer, and several musical genres, with Peel?

Whatever the future might hold is irrelevant, however. And flights of such fancy may play no part in it. And that’s fine, too: the broadcast world is now much, much wider than formal homes-of-music alone, and professionally-produced podcasts can build a sizable following and generate their own momentum. For now, the podcast is a sure sign that AK’s got his mojo back. Next episode is out on 31 May and you could do a lot worse than spend two hours of your bank holiday in his company to soundtrack your BBQ. A hearty welcome home, Andy.

#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

TotW: The Bamboos – Ride on Time

Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ was a game-changer when it came out in 1989. Sampling was already being done – M|A|R|R|S’s ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was a massive hit two years earlier, illustrating the power of cutting and splicing tracks against a beat, and the same sample which Black Box had used had featured on Samantha Fox’s ‘I Wanna Have Some Fun’, a track which somehow, curiously, passed me by at the time, one year previously. What we now know as electronic dance music was experiencing its first flourishing as house music coming out of the Chicago scene, led by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s beat tracks and the DJ International label; and the second summer of love had just gone by. Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ was as early as 1982 and Public Enemy’s ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ was released in 1987 and hip-hop was a familiar face by the end of the decade.

There was, to coin a phrase, nothing that was particularly new about Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’; the ground – if not that well-trodden – had at least been well-prepared.

What was different about it was firstly the technology – Black Box (a team of three Italian DJs and producers) had bought a sampler which allowed them to remix live in clubs, although it wasn’t capable of storing more than three vocal snippets at once; and secondly that they took an identifiable sequence of notes, literally a few seconds of vocal and the song’s essential hook, from a single, existing song and, cutting and re-cutting it repeatedly into different combinations, made a whole new song out of it, threading everything together with an insistent piano rhythm which marked their genre. In the process, they raised arguments about ownership, royalties and copyright which were not unfamiliar ones either when artists were sued for copyright infringements – or when, conversely, they elected not to do so – but which had rarely, if ever, previously aired quite as intensely or as controversially as this.

Thirdly, of course, they made something which not only came later to symbolise the euphoria of the time but something which was also, through its visceral physicality, quite firmly grounded. ‘Ride On Time’ was a remarkable song whose ground-breaking nature lay not in that it was new, but that it was possessed of enormous strength, a life force capable of splitting atoms and an astonishing vibrancy which was perfectly in tune with its time. Listening to it now is not only to be reminded of those times but to be reminded of the song’s sheer presence although very little of its essential spirit actually came from Black Box themselves.

The song which they used was originally a 1980 track by Dan Hartman called ‘Love Sensation’, written for disco singer Loleatta Holloway. The full story – quite well-known now, of course – is well set out by Terry Matthew in an article for Chicago house specialist magazine 5mag.net, setting the song against the background of Hartman’s life and career, building in also aspects of Holloway’s own, while Black Box have also given lengthy, and similar, interviews to DJ Mag and to NME coinciding with a 30th anniversary remix they gave the song in 2019, essentially taking it back to its 70s disco roots.

Essentially, ‘Love Sensation’ was one-half of a swap deal which saw Holloway contribute a brief, but barnstorming, vocal contribution to Hartman’s own ‘Relight My Fire’ (if you know the Take That version, think (evidently) Lulu’s contribution but multiply by ten) while Hartman wrote and produced ‘Love Sensation’ for an album that Holloway was working on. She later reported that Hartman made her sing ‘Love Sensation’ 29 times before the final take, wanting deliberately to run her vocal chords ragged to get that note of on-the-edge desperation to the delivery of her lines which is both the song’s hallmark as well as the physical power base which Black Box took. Ultimately, Holloway was apparently aided by coffee sweetened with Vick’s VaporRub. However, the song immediately fell to obscurity – by the time it came out, disco was in its death throes in the US and the industry was experiencing an unprecedented, unheralded and unwanted backlash – being ignored on the crossover pop charts and spending no more than one week at No. 1 even on the specialist dance charts.

If you don’t know ‘Love Sensation’ – or especially if you know it only through ‘Ride on Time’ or one of the more than 30 other tracks which have sampled it amidst the more than 300 samples which have been built on Holloway’s work – do check it out: divorced from the chopped repetition of the samples on ‘Ride On Time’, and sustained over the course of a whole song which has a start, a middle and an end, it is noticeable that Holloway’s performance on the song is varied, being blisteringly raw and possessed of quite extraordinary physical power and emotional intensity at some points as well as moments of soaring sweetness at others. Despite whatever else was going on in the music industry at the time, this deserved to be a huge hit.

Note, if you will, the relative play counts: 84k for ‘Love Sensation’ (there are actually several versions of the original floating around but nothing more than this, I don’t think); while the official Black Box video for ‘Ride On Time’ has some 17m.

Not expecting much to come out of their own work in putting their track together other than for local kids, Black Box didn’t seek any sort of clearances, but the song became a huge hit in the UK and right across Europe following UK DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling travelling to Italy in search of Italo house music, a niche but growing sub-genre, for their gigs and shows, and landing heavily on it, buying up all available copies. The UK label to which Black Box eventually released the song once the level of demand had been realised late that summer had also told them they would secure clearance although a legal dispute between record companies meant this had not been fully resolved. The rest is history. While Dan Hartman’s observation on hearing ‘Ride On Time’ was the laconic ‘I think I wrote it’, followed by legal action, Holloway was deeply dismayed, traumatised and bitter, regarding that her work had been taken without credit and later confessing that it had brought her close to a nervous breakdown. Scared by the furore, Black Box quickly re-cut the track, it seems with future M People singer Heather Small, also originally uncredited, albeit with somewhat mixed results. A video hastily shot for the song featured an Italian model, who didn’t speak English, lip-synching to Holloway’s words which, unfamiliar a process as it was at the time, poured oil on the flames already consuming her: not only had they stolen her voice, they had traded her image in for a younger, skinnier version physically incapable of generating Holloway’s power.

Hartman’s legal action ended with him making a friendly and generous gesture of a one-third share of the royalties, when he could have had the lot; Holloway, however, never received a penny since her label, Salsoul, owned the rights to her studio work although publishing has, since those times, credited her on the song as ‘feat. Loleatta Holloway’ in a style that is now familiar. Given that ‘Ride On Time’ is stamped right through with her – her presence, her aura and her labour – she ought to have been properly recognised for it at the time (as she had been through samples done earlier by DJ International) and certainly she ought to have had a better share of the proceeds than the fur coat she is said to have been furnished with while being prevented from speaking badly about it in public. Black Box bought out those rights in 2018; Holloway had died in 2011. Sad on so many levels.

Now, however, nine-piece Melbourne funksters The Bamboos have bravely taken on the impossible by covering ‘Ride On Time’, mondegreen and all, as the ‘B’-side of their new single, arising out of some studio session work for their forthcoming LP (due out early next month). The tune had cropped up on some 90s music which the band was listening to while relaxing between takes. A suggestion and a nervous laugh later, and the musicians accepted the challenge. Just to be clear: what we have here is a band covering a track that was itself little more than a few seconds of snatched sample, but as a fully-fledged song in its own right. I’m sure m’lords back at Rough Trade were all over this and it’s well worth checking out as a track of the week:

For those keeping a watch on these things it’s notable that this is already not far short of 20k plays. Without much of a current presence on Bandcamp – though The Bamboos do have something out for Record Store Day this year – this is one you’ll need to pick up from your local record shop (happily now open again) – it’s out as a 7″ on Rough Trade (PT009) or direct via The Bamboos’ website store.

At a time when live music needs all the help it can get, it’s great to see a working band cover a song originally made in the studio out of pre-recorded clips. It’s also great to see The Bamboos already out on the road in Australia; it’s a hopeful sign that these times might, one day, come our way again, too.

It’s not so much a cover as a necessary reinterpretation of Black Box’s original confection. Wisely, The Bamboos use the crisp brassiness of the horn section to do the heavy lifting on some of the more blistering elements of how Black Box’s sampling and sequencing made Holloway’s voice appear, while band vocalist Kylie Auldist, capable of mixing it with anyone among her contemporaries for vocal power (check out also her work on ‘Hard Up’, the A-side) but who also knows when to exercise restraint, sensibly chooses not to try and out-Loleatta Loleatta Holloway while nevertheless ensuring the song has the gritty kick it needs to retain its emotional punch. The production has a wonderful amount of space in it, allowing all the instruments room to breathe and in sharp contrast to the tightly claustrophobic atmosphere set down in the Black Box original. The drums, at the fore throughout, send you skittering for cover, the guitars lay down a funky bottom line to set your hips shaking and the brief organ break, which re-states Black Box’s own vital contribution (the piano hook) and gives the space from which Kylie leads the charge home, is a surprise and a delight. The horns win the right to finish the song and the few moments of quiet after the fade reminds the listener of the need to breathe again. Enormous fun. Grab your share!

ToTW: I Wanna Be Vaccinated

Vaccines much in the news today again (no, not The Vaccines – Ed; though it seems they are having a bit of a re-launch, I suspect at the timely instigation of their record company) with a government consultation underway about whether workers in care homes in England (health otherwise being a devolved matter) need to have had a vaccine in order to keep their job; Denmark abandoning its roll-out programme of the AZ vaccine; while a certain publicity-shy London mayoral candidate was touting his fear of needles while nevertheless having visible tattoos (I’m not bothering to link).

The best vaccine news of the day – heard over the live! Marc Riley show on 6Music tonight (even the pre-recorded and well-used jingles sound fresher and more exuberant) – was that Jeffrey Lewis has finally got around to putting a video together for ‘I Wanna Be Vaccinated’. I blogged about the lyrics on this a while ago and it’s great to see him get around to it. Now featuring drums, bass and b-vox as well as electricity – all additions to the demo (radio) version which was just him and his guitar – as well as a somewhat slower pace of attack which lets him fit the words in even better (yes, I misheard one of the lyrics earlier), the video has little of real-life Jeffrey himself other than his hand-drawn cartoons illustrating the lyrics and delightfully capturing both the Ramones and Jeffrey himself in hand-drawn form. He’s an extremely talented man is Mr. Lewis and the cartoons – which pass inevitably quickly on first viewing – have lots of features which reveal themselves the more you view it and including, in this blogger’s view, a pretty faithful rendition of himself at the end in the style of Woody Guthrie’s own ‘Bound for Glory’ self-drawing.

Anyway, without further ado, here it is:

Still no sign of a paid-for version on Bandcamp, though if you’re quick you’ll definitely be in the first 500 viewers on YT – it was only released today! Track of the week this week, for sure.

I’m not so sure about care home workers but I reckon mayoral candidates definitely ought to have proof of vaccine before being able to stand (or going out campaigning and mixing it with the public) …

GET YOUR SHOTS!

Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

TotW: Jessie Buckley – Country Girl

‘Country girl / Take my hand / Lead me through / This diseased land / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn’

A song for our times – or, perhaps, for the times still yet to come; for the post-pandemic. 2021 has seen a few good tunes so far, but I heard this cover of the Primal Scream original on the joyfully-bearded Huw Stephens show, stepping in these last two weeks for the holidaying Marc Riley’s evening slot on 6Music (@11:20). It crouched, but gathered, and then just leapt at me across the airwaves accompanied by an ecstatic, celebratory, life-affirming roar.

Recovering, I dived straight for Jessie’s Bandcamp to grab a copy; but there was no artist page, so I turned next to Wikipedia which told me she’s not actually ‘a singer’ at all (which would explain the lack of a Bandcamp…), rather an actress (and with a fair amount of pedigree in TV roles) who also sings quite a bit in her acting roles. Anyway, enough of the labelling. Buckley took the title role in 2019’s BAFTA-nominated Wild Rose, from where ‘Country Girl’ comes, which is something of a paean to Glasgow and in which she plays the role of Rose-Lynne Harlan (a country name if ever I heard one), a young, somewhat troubled, working class woman trying to get to Nashville to pursue her singing dreams. Not being much* of a TV viewer and without regular access to cinema (pace the Screen Machine), the film (like the rest of Buckley’s substantial credits) has rather passed me by up to this point (though I will try and see Wild Rose now, in some sort of format, it not yet being available on the Screen Machine’s small screen offer). It was well-reviewed and there was a good amount of noise about Buckley herself in the film’s release publicity rounds, but I did take an even stronger interest when I read the plot on the Wikipedia page on the film, which includes a description of our Rose-Lynn going to Nashville where she sneaks on stage at the historic Ryman Auditorium during a backstage tour.

(Dear Reader: now, that struck something of a recollection in me since I also did exactly this (in my younger days, obvs). Only I sneaked into the Ryman building, in May 1989, underneath some scaffolding and through an open backstage door, very early on in some substantial reconstruction works going on there ahead of it becoming again a venue, which would take five years to complete, before hitching myself to what I fortuitously quickly realised was some sort of guided tour already going on right there in front of me and which included ascending up there, on that famous, enormous arc of a stage. Unlike Rose-Lynn, I didn’t sing (well, it wasn’t empty). I just looked out at those seats – the same view that Hank Williams would have had – took in the completely dishevelled and inevitably dusty atmosphere, wondered about how easily it would have legendarily reached 120F up there on the stage when it was packed on a hot summer’s night in the South, and posed a wee bit. And imagined. God, yes! Can’t say that I met Hank himself, though.)

Back to the present day, and here is Jessie Buckley with ‘Country Girl’, as seen on Wild Rose:

It’s great to see a woman sing this song, which gives the lyrics an extra dimension, and also reclaim aspects of the video filmed for the original, which left me uncomfortable (while at the same time also paying a kind of homage to it). It’s also worth checking out some of Jessie’s other songs from the film, such as ‘Born To Run‘ (no, not that one – Ed.) – she has a belter of a voice both for stompers like ‘Country Girl’ and crooners alike. And it looks as though they had great fun filming it, which is also likely to help the dynamism of any film in which you have to believe the essential realism of the world the characters inhabit.

Jessie’s backing band features Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, also of this parish, as well as Neil MacColl, and you have to have a fair amount of chops yourself to be fronting up a band with them supplying the backing. Better still, it puts the mandolin – one of the best things about the original – closer to the front and adds some down-home fiddle. The layering and increasing stridency as the song builds its power, highlighting in the film the singer’s consideration and then definitive rejection of the internal doubts running through her (a crisis of self-doubt being something all too familiar to working class women), is a sign of great confidence not only in the material but also in the singer’s own abilities. And, if all that’s indeed your thing, and so it oughta be, I think, the Wild Rose soundtrack is out on Island Records.

TotW – Track of the Week. Likely to be an irregular, and probably not at all weekly, series of posts about new (or new to me) songs that have left me all shook up. Uh-huh-huh.

A song of our times

I tweeted earlier this week, after Dolly Parton received the Modena jab that she had also helped to fund, that Jeffrey Lewis, the New York artist, had covered and updated The Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for our times (and shortened it – at least in terms of time: Jeffrey does have the ability to spit out lyrics in very short order while playing a guitar – an immense skill for someone like me who can (only) do one thing at once). Faced with being awake at an entirely atypically early hour, and in honour of it being a ‘Bandcamp Friday‘, I thought I’d spend the time scribbling out his lyrics. So, here they are:

I Wanna Be Vaccinated

I’m making an appointment for the Covid drug

I wanna be vaccinated

It’s been a year since I gave my friends a hug

I wanna be vaccinated

Living in dystopia is losing all its charm

I’m sick of rising numbers, paranoia and alarm

So hurry, hurry, hurry and just stick it in my arm

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

I never see my family, or a gig or a movie theatre

I wanna be vaccinated

But that now all seems normal and that makes it even weirder

I wanna be vaccinated

Let seniors and essential workers get it in advance

Then although I’m scared of needles, man, just give me half a chance

I’ll be rolling up both shirt sleeves and be pulling down my pants

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

<key change>

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

I wanna stand around with friends and look like a Ramone

I wanna be vaccinated

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, Cool! you can stay at home

I wanna be vaccinated

Science is the coolest thing about the human race

So let’s keep spreading the safety and keep picking up the pace

‘Cos I miss having a life and I miss having a face

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccin-a-ted

That line about anti-vaxxers just makes me smile! A somewhat better effort, I think, than Dolly’s ‘Don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot’ (from The Guardian article in the first link). Though full applause for Dolly, all the same.

If you can’t pick up the tune, it is, of course, to this absolute and indeed now visionary classic:

Jeffrey’s version, recorded in his ‘Pandemos’ series, is still not out yet (hurry, hurry, hurry!) but you can pick up a copy of ‘Keep It Chill (In the East Vill.)’ – an earlier lockdown special and with *a lot* more lyrics- at his bandcamp. So do stop by and at least hear Jeffrey’s style.

Like all net-based platforms, Bandcamp is not immune from criticism but, in music industry terms, its fair trade music policy does mean much more of what you pay them for your music goes direct to the artists – typically 80-85 per cent. On ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ – like today – that share rises to 100 per cent. So go on – give it a go. You can try (sometimes selected songs, sometimes the whole work) before you buy, so you have nothing to lose – and struggling artists have everything to gain.

Right. Now off to make a mug of coffee. And then brew some beer.